By Dr. Jim Ferguson
I sometimes wonder if life is passing me by. Perhaps my feelings are colored by hearing that two more of my long term colleagues have announced their retirements. I’ll admit it’s tricky to know when it’s time to go, and too many seem to stay beyond their time. I advised one friend that he should not retire without a plan, and sent him my recent essay which describes Cicero’s advice on how to grow old. Or maybe it’s the increasingly problematic bureaucracy of medicine which frustrates me and makes me contemplate throwing in the towel.
And then perhaps it’s a relativistic impression that causes me to see life passing me because I’m no longer going anywhere. All my life I was striving to get an education, build a medical practice and raise a family. All of these have been accomplished. However, a new chapter has opened and the journey isn’t over because the Psalmist, Proverbist and Cicero have refocused me on my role as a rising elder. Supporting family and grandkids is a great job as I look for opportunities to sow nuggets of experiential wisdom with the next generations. This job has responsibility, but more so, a blessing.
We are now in the season of Advent, a word which derives from Medieval Latin, meaning arrival. The arrival of Jesus changed the world two millennia ago and like no other birth in history, most of us still celebrate His birthday. And even non believers get the day off and can enjoy holiday gatherings.
Becky and I recently watched our first Christmas movie of the season. One of our favorites is A Christmas Story where a little boy wishes for a BB gun. We adults understand that the spirit of Christmas is personified in Santa Claus. But to a child Christmas is a magical time. There will be plenty of time for my grandchildren to grow up and be philosophical, but for now I want the “cute-ones” to experience the magic of Christmas. And gift giving is a long standing tradition going back to the gospeler Matthew’s account of the Magi. My family is blessed and the adults recognize that it’s Jesus’ birth we celebrate, not our own. Consequently, we’ve decided to give gifts to the children and those less fortunate in honor of The Christ, rather than to each other.
Christmas lights seem to be showing up earlier this year. Maybe people need the Christmas Spirit more in these days of tumult. My SIL’s favorite Christmas movie is The Christmas Vacation. In this comedy, Clark Griswold assumes his father’s role as the “master of exterior illumination.” The Big House on our farm is now festooned with colorful Christmas lighting. Becky and I will now have to hustle to keep up with our neighbors, the Johnsons. I recently read that some Grinches object to their neighbor’s exterior illumination. What’s wrong with these people? I refuse to let such killjoys sap my Christmas spirit.
We do have our Christmas Tree up, and the cute-ones “helped” us decorate it – as much as five and two year olds can help. In addition to multi-colored lights and garlands, our tree is decorated with ornaments we have collected throughout our marriage and our travels. These range from a Santa driving a New York yellow cab, a duck billed platypus from New Zealand, a Beefeater from Buckingham Palace and a water cup from Wall Drugs in the Badlands of South Dakota. Hanging these ornaments and those that commemorate the birth of my children and gifted ornamentals from friends are like trips down memory lane. Our tree has traditional angels and those made by our kids in nursery school (see the pic), and reindeers and Santas, but it also sports skiing snowmen, a handsome red pickup truck carrying a Christmas ornament and an internist in a white lab coat impersonating Santa.
Memories are a vital aspect of our humanity, and this is why dementia is so devastating. Recently, we celebrated the eighteenth family gathering of the Ferguson clan for Thanksgiving at our mountain cabin. Each year we’ve taken a group picture of family, friends and old boyfriends who didn’t make the final cut. Becky displayed all the pictures, and the memories washed over us all.
In ancient times, few people could read or write and recordings on vellum or parchment were very expensive and time consuming. As a result, stories were memorized and then recited around campfires and in town squares by professional raconteurs. These memory masters held prominence in ancient aural societies. As an example, the Iliad was often memorized and then recited line for line utilizing memorization techniques we moderns no longer deem necessary. We just Google a poem or go to YouTube to hear a song.
Because memorization is not as important as in times past, people marvel that I remember Biblical and historical events, especially those of western culture. Though I have a good memory, I’m not exceptional. To remember something, it helps to be interested in a topic like history. I explain my organization of historical events as analogous to a Christmas tree.
We cut this year’s tree from my brother’s farm and set it up in our home. We then added lights, ornaments and finally garlands to transform an evergreen to a Christmas tree. By analogy, I add historical events to the tree-like framework of time. You can do the same. Billy Graham once lamented that he didn’t memorize enough scripture, so that he’d have the Word when his vision and hearing failed.
Kathie Lee Gifford is a Christian and advises forgiveness for her disgraced colleague, Matt Lauer. And I agree with her. I wish I could say that I’m sorry for the elite media, politicians and Hollywood types who have so recently fallen so far from grace. The German word schadenfreude means deriving joy from the misfortune of another. I take no pleasure in the downfall of these hypocrites and predators; I just wish they would disappear and be silent. And while I believe in forgiveness I also believe in owning the consequences of our choices.
My prayer at Christmas is that those who are lost will be “driven upon [their] knees by the overwhelming conviction that [they have] nowhere else to go.” It is then that the lover of our souls, the Christmas Savior, can save us all.